Monday, June 26, 2006

The DRM Dilemma...

For followers of the New Media debate, the emergence of Digital Rights Management (DRM) software has quickly come onto the national political radar.

DRM software basically encrypts music CDs and video DVDs. On one side of the debate, Hollywood and the recording industry argue that such encryption prevents piracy and protects copyright holders. On the other side, consumer advocates and technologists argue that DRM goes against technological innovation and takes away already existing consumer rights.

Read the full debate in the Wall Street Journal here.

As someone who creates software, I have to say that I have personal experience with the problems of DRM. The Digital Milennium Copyright Act makes it illegal for me to write software that will "circumvent" anti-piracy measures - and this seems perfectly legitimate on its surface. However, with the state of current Internet technologies, almost ANY Internet software I create could be used by people to circumvent those measures.

For example, let's say I want to write my own program for sharing digital home movies with my family. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, and I am certainly not violating copyright laws when home movies are what is being shared. However, according to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, any program I create even for legitimate, non-infringing purposes would still be illegal simply because someone else might get hold of the program and use it for illegal purposes.

As a result, there are a ton of programmers out there with great ideas for innovative new software products - all of which serve legitimate purposes. However, they are "chilled" from distributing it because some unscrupulous people might possibly use it for reasons other than what it's intended for, and get scared about the possibility of litigation.

DRM encryption is problematic exactly for this reason. People still cannot watch their legally purchased DVDs on Linux computers, and cannot play their legally acquired music on certain MP3 devices, because DRM encryption chills developers away from creating such products (even though there is an obvious market demand for them).

Furthermore, DRM threatens to take away the Fair Uses of copyrighted material that the law is supposed to protect. The use of copyrighted material has always been legally permissable by educational institutions, and for the purposes of political commentary and news reporting. DRM makes such Fair Use impossible.

As the Internet increasingly becomes characterized by ordinary people creating media content (think MySpace and YouTube), what is at issue is how DRM inhibits innovation, takes away existing Fair Use rights, and ultimately limits the diversity of media content in cyberspace. Certainly, this is something people should be concerned about.


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